Bangladesh's inaugural Test tour of England in 2005 consisted of eight weeks of toil and one glorious day. By defeating the world champions, Australia, at Cardiff, at the start of the one-day NatWest Series, they achieved their greatest ever result, and arguably the biggest upset in the game's history. For the serial whipping-boys of international cricket, one swallow really did make a summer.
Yet the widespread astonishment that greeted their victory merely underlined the inevitable question: how could Bangladesh continue to justify their Test status? In their main business of the summer, a two-Test series that began with a maiden fixture at Lord's, they were on the receiving end of a pair of hidings as numbingly predictable as they were comprehensive: their 32nd and 33rd defeats - the 21st and 22nd by an innings - in 38 Tests.
Both Tests were wrapped up on the third morning, and the speed with which Bangladesh were rushed to defeat mirrored the unseemly haste with which they had been elevated to the upper echelons. England entered the series with eight consecutive home Test wins under their belts, and the defining challenge of their careers, against Australia, fast approaching. With such an intense combination of form and focus, their only struggle was to pretend that Bangladesh posed a credible challenge. By the end, England captain Michael Vaughan had dispensed with the platitudes. The series, he admitted, had simply been too easy.
For once, the statistics told the whole story. England lost just six wickets to Bangladesh's 40, and their three leading scorers, Marcus Trescothick, Ian Bell and Vaughan, outstripped the entire opposition by 736 runs to 622. Trescothick, in particular, was in his element, adding innings of 194 and 151 to the century he had made in the inaugural fixture between these sides, at Dhaka in October 2003. Bell, in his third Test, stroked an effortless maiden hundred at Chester-le-Street which included 105 before lunch on the second day. The declaration left him with a grotesque career average of 297, and a realisation that he would never again have it so good.
If there was any consolation for Bangladesh, it was that they would never again have it so bad. Faced with an itinerary that might have been devised to shame the International Cricket Council into revoking their status, they were pitched into the most inhospitable conditions of their fledging careers. England in early May is no place for a team from the subcontinent, least of all one that had never before played a first-class match in this country (though eight had toured with Bangladesh Under-19 in July and August the previous year). With an average age of 23, the Bangladeshis were short of life experience, let alone cricket experience. The 16-man party had no choice but to learn on the hoof.
A gentle warm-up against British Universities at Fenner's was the closest they came to competing on equal terms in the opening weeks; the veneer was stripped away at Hove a few days later, when the captain, Habibul Bashar, was felled by a bouncer from ageing left-armer Jason Lewry. A second-string Sussex side romped to victory in seaming conditions by an innings and 226 runs.
The incident left Habibul with a nasty gash, and untold damage to Bangladesh's collective confidence. The rock of their batting was forced to miss the second innings of the Hove defeat and the final warm-up at Northampton; short of match practice, he was incapable of leading his young side by example. Two wretched strokes at Lord's set the agenda for a desperate batting display.
It was left to the youngest member of the party to do the job instead. By consistently playing late and straight, Bangladesh's baby-faced reserve wicketkeeper, Mushfiqur Rahim, found a formula that enabled him to thrive in the unfamiliar conditions. He followed up a face-saving 63 at Hove with an unbeaten 115 at Northampton, an unanswerable case for his Test debut at Lord's, where he played as a specialist batsman. He was listed at 16 years and 267 days, which made him officially the ninth-youngest Test cricketer in history - though only the third-youngest for Bangladesh.
A twisted ankle ended his tour prematurely, but Mushfiqur was a qualified success in his single Test, one of only three batsmen reaching double figures in a dismal first-innings total of 108. The others were the obdurate opener, Javed Omar Belim, whose patience proved a virtue and brought him Bangladesh's highest individual aggregate, 155, and Aftab Ahmed, whose reckless approach drove Dav Whatmore, their long-suffering coach, to distraction. In many ways, Aftab epitomised both Bangladesh's promise for the future and their failings of the present. His 20 from 14 balls in the First Test was the innings of a man in a hurry to succeed, but succeed he ultimately did. A boundary-laden 82 not out in the Second Test prevented England from achieving their stated aim of a two-day finish.
From England's point of view, the entire series was viewed through a green-and-gold filter. Every mini-session was micro-analysed in terms of the challenge that it laid down to the Australians, and so, for all the one-sidedness of the action, the subplots remained intriguing. With pressure for places gathering, Graham Thorpe, for instance, knew full well the significance of his 100th Test at Chester-le-Street, although his runs were not in the end enough to fend off Kevin Pietersen. Steve Harmison collected ten wickets for the series, including a spell of five for 38 on his home ground that would have troubled far better opposition.
Habibul later said that England had played an even tougher game than the Aussies when they met in 2003; on the evidence, it was hard to disagree. A controversial bump-ball incident at Chester-le-Street summed up England's no-nonsense attitude. When wicketkeeper Geraint Jones scooped up the seventh of nine catches to end Bangladesh's first meaningful partnership of the match, a more savvy cricketer than Nafis Iqbal would have stood his ground and awaited the verdict; a more generous opposition might have recalled him anyway. But England were past caring about their Ps and Qs.
Vaughan was more concerned about his team's fine-tuning. Even at the end of the series, he was still chuntering about their first half-hour at Lord's, when Harmison and Matthew Hoggard wasted the new ball in a profligate display that would have had Australia's openers drooling. Hoggard, so effective in South Africa, struggled consistently for rhythm; he even resorted to practising with his eyes closed to correct a persistent no-ball problem.
That may have been an apt metaphor for the ease of England's victory. When Hoggard was given the match award in the Second Test for scything through the tail, it merely demonstrated the unworldliness of Bangladesh's performance: they were suckered time and again by the moving delivery. They would return home a wiser side and, thanks to their day in the sun at Cardiff, a more confident one. But, for the six days that really mattered, Bangladesh once again confirmed their detractors' argument: they were not ready for Test status.
Match reports for
Match reports for
British Universities v Bangladeshis at Cambridge, May 10-12, 2005
Sussex v Bangladeshis at Hove, May 15-17, 2005
Northamptonshire v Bangladeshis at Northampton, May 20-22, 2005
Derbyshire v Bangladeshis at Derby, Jun 10, 2005
Worcestershire v Bangladeshis at Worcester, Jun 12, 2005